Michael Pollan Proposes A "Sun-Food" Agenda In Open Letter To Next U.S. President


Michael Pollan in his garden. The New York Times via The Sydney Morning Herald

Writing in The New York Times, Michael Pollan has outlined the way path to a sustainable agriculture strategy for the next U.S. administration. The journalist and best-selling author of The Omnivore's Dilemma , explains how food policy is a cornerstone of many of the key issues in the current election campaign while remaining virtually unacknowledged by the candidates.

Pollan begins with a gentle warning for the president elect.

But with a suddenness that has taken us all by surprise, the era of cheap and abundant food appears to be drawing to a close. What this means is that you, like so many other leaders through history, will find yourself confronting the fact — so easy to overlook these past few years — that the health of a nation's food system is a critical issue of national security. Food is about to demand your attention.

Along with the requisite history of how federal government policy helped create the current, and failing, industrial food system - think commodity subsidies, centralized processing and school meal programs - Pollan breezes through the hot issues, tying each to food. Along the way he explains how turning away from fossil fuel based agriculture - that confuses an abundance of calories, and little else, with healthy people, economies and environments - towards his "sun-food" agenda will help cure the ills of each.

On the Environment

...the 20th-century industrialization of agriculture has increased the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by the food system by an order of magnitude; chemical fertilizers (made from natural gas), pesticides (made from petroleum), farm machinery, modern food processing and packaging and transportation have together transformed a system that in 1940 produced 2.3 calories of food energy for every calorie of fossil-fuel energy it used into one that now takes 10 calories of fossil-fuel energy to produce a single calorie of modern supermarket food. Put another way, when we eat from the industrial-food system, we are eating oil and spewing greenhouse gases.

On The Economy
To put the food system back on sunlight will require policies to change how things work at every link in the food chain: in the farm field, in the way food is processed and sold and even in the American kitchen and at the American dinner table. Yet the sun still shines down on our land every day, and photosynthesis can still work its wonders wherever it does. If any part of the modern economy can be freed from its dependence on oil and successfully resolarized, surely it is food.

On Health Care
Four of the top 10 killers in America today are chronic diseases linked to diet: heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes and cancer. It is no coincidence that in the years national spending on health care went from 5 percent to 16 percent of national income, spending on food has fallen by a comparable amount — from 18 percent of household income to less than 10 percent.

On Foreign Policy
[Foreign leaders] will now rush to rebuild their own agricultural sectors and then seek to protect them by erecting trade barriers. Expect to hear the phrases "food sovereignty" and "food security" on the lips of every foreign leader you meet.

On Terrorism
The deliberate contamination of our food presents another national-security threat. At his valedictory press conference in 2004, Tommy Thompson, the secretary of health and human services, offered a chilling warning, saying, "I, for the life of me, cannot understand why the terrorists have not attacked our food supply, because it is so easy to do."

All of this leads to the poignant observation that a sustainable food policy crosses political lines like no other issue.

There is a gathering sense among the public that the industrial-food system is broken. Markets for alternative kinds of food — organic, local, pasture-based, humane — are thriving as never before. All this suggests that a political constituency for change is building and not only on the left: lately, conservative voices have also been raised in support of reform. Writing of the movement back to local food economies, traditional foods (and family meals) and more sustainable farming, The American Conservative magazine editorialized last summer that "this is a conservative cause if ever there was one."

And, taking it one step further, Pollan writes how "twinned crises in food and energy" have created an unprecedented political opportunity to overhaul the food system.

...most of the problems our food system faces today are because of its reliance on fossil fuels, and to the extent that our policies wring the oil out of the system and replace it with the energy of the sun, those policies will simultaneously improve the state of our health, our environment and our security.

Seizing this opportunity is simple. Pollan's three-pronged solution includes:
1. Resolarizing the American Farm - turning away from fossil fuel based inputs, to solutions that rely on the power of the sun.
2. Reregionalizing the Food System - creating a decentralized food system that plays to the strengths of each region while managing the weaknesses.
3. Rebuilding America's Food Culture - educating everyone, but especially children, why and how to grow and cook food. Leadership here would come in the form of the presidential family sitting down together to meals as regularly as possible, cooked by a chef dedicated to sustainable food and ingredients sourced from a White House farm.

Food is one of our most basic common necessities. People around the world are protesting and rioting because food is unavailable or inadequate. Cheap food policies have kept most Americans blind to the workings of the food system, but the end of cheap food will arrive with the end of cheap oil. A sustainable "sun-food" policy is a way forward.

...when we eat from the industrial-food system, we are eating oil and spewing greenhouse gases. This state of affairs appears all the more absurd when you recall that every calorie we eat is ultimately the product of photosynthesis — a process based on making food energy from sunshine. There is hope and possibility in that simple fact.

via The New York Times
More on Michael Pollan
Monsanto and Michael Pollan Talk About Creating a World That Can Feed Itself
Michael Pollan on What Sustainability is Really About
Michael Pollan: The Government Makes You Fat
Biofuels, Food, and Sustainability Examined: Michael Pollan Interviewed by Yale Univ.
Michael Pollan: Read it and Eat!

Tags: 2008 Elections | Agriculture | Local Food | Michael Pollan | United States

Best of TreeHugger